The internet is decentralized by design. It took off with hackers running independent servers in their basements. Direct peer-to-peer communication was common among the first inhabitants of the web. The internet was a liberating force that connected and empowered people. The ability to send information instantly to any corner of the world seemed surreal and fascinating.
As more and more of the population joined, the net became more convenient. It shifted towards centralized services and walled gardens. We have waived our rights for the faster, sleeker experience which gradually turned into ad-ridden, attention-grabbing nightmare that we face today. Nowadays, the web is ruled by corporate overlords who made ego-driven photo sharing easy even for the least tech-savvy of us. Somewhere along the way, the vision of decentralization was lost. It was traded in for the vision of convenience and profit.
Today, we see that we have gone too far in the direction of centralization. We have our data abused and sold by the corporations who mostly care about growth. We were told that the free web is unsafe and dark, but hate groups easily hijack centralized platforms to spread their agenda with enormous scale and power. Maybe it is still possible to regain the initial vision of decentralization? Maybe it is still an option to swing back the pendulum and empower internet users with independence, content ownership and liberty? I believe it still can be done. And the initial deep ideas of the decentralized web can help to guide us towards this important goal.
In the early days of the internet, it was clear that everyone owned their content. The ownership was very physical. It meant that you run your own server, and all the data that you want to share with people can be stored on the hardware platform of yours. You could transfer and back up the information yourself if you had the technical wits about how to do it.
Today, in the convenient world of the web, people are not aware of the servers. They create and publish content on the centralized social platforms that try to monetize and sell their information. If the platforms can’t monetize their user data, they simply shut down and take away all the years of work and content that the end user has contributed to them. In a way, the users are selling the rights of their content for the platforms, and in exchange, they can use these platforms for free.
In order to implement the vision of decentralization, first we need empower people to easily publish and own their content on the web. Together with Val Repsys, we have built a prototype of a decentralized publishing platform https://dpage.io/ that enables people to easily create informational content-oriented web pages.
As you can see, there are no ads, no clutter, only information that was created by the user. This information has a personalized URL that can be shared across the multiplicity of social platforms without giving up ownership. The user is still controlling and owning the information that is referenced by his unique URL and domain name.
Dpage.io is not a website builder, and it is not a blogging platform. Running a website is quite complicated — it involves a wide range of skills such as basic design feel and at least elementary IT knowledge. The informational landscape today shifted from people sharing personal websites to sharing social posts. The problem is that the posts that people create are not independent pages owned by end user. They are governed by a service that they were posted in.
Giving people an easy way to publish and own their content online is something that is still missing today. The complexity of this problem was exploited by the big tech companies. In the end it left all of us less powerful and dependent on the monopolies of the web.
Who are you? This is the question that every platform, every website is asking you. It is a very important question because the answer to it defines what you can do and if you can be trusted. It is a sad state of affairs today that most of us have given up our identity for others to control. Every time you do ‘log in with facebook’ or ‘log in with google’ you relinquish the right to vouch for yourself. Now the corporations are the authorities that prove your credibility and identity. If you don’t own your identity, that means one day your identity and your rights can be taken away.
What does the early internet wisdom tell us about identity? It tells us that everyone should have a personal domain name. The domain name system enables any person on earth to have his human-readable address on the web. This system is decentralized by design and is owned by nobody. Sure, it has its own shortcomings, vulnerabilities and so on. But the protocols can be improved. It is important that we retain this vision of decentralized web identity available for anyone.
The Blockstack platform has invented their own domain name system that is based on blockchain. That might be the natural evolution of a more secure DNS model that could make the decentralized identity more wide-spread. However, the problem that I have with blockchain solutions is the lack of legal ownership of your identity. If the identity can theoretically be stolen by gaining access to your computer, it is not much of a reliable identity at all. The good thing about original domain name system is that you can protect your domain with the law. If somebody stole your name, you could have a case in court against that person and take your identity back. This legal aspect of internet identity is very important to ensure its robustness.
Today, we are missing easier ways to register and control domain names. Connecting your domain that was bought at one provider to a different website hosting service is a nightmare for a common user. Since it is more profitable for business that a user would buy both domain name and all the other services in the same place, they intentionally make this experience less user-friendly.
Domain name system and domain based email addresses are the last pillars of the old decentralized internet that we use today. We should not sacrifice these important ideas for convenience, but improve and embrace them. Everyone should have a basic human right to have their own presence and identity of the web.
After we have all the people owning their content, creating decentralized web pages and connecting them to their own domain names we still have a problem. People need a way to share their content and get the recognition for it.
Today, the centralized platforms are the way people create and share their content. However, the sharing tends to be limited mostly inside the platform itself. For example, it is more convenient to share Facebook videos on Facebook’s social network than youtube videos. Cross-platform sharing is strongly discouraged using all kinds of dark UX patterns. You see, it is not profitable for the platforms to allow their users to leave their walled garden. If you go outside, you will consume less ads. This is called poor retention.
In order to empower people in owning their own content, we also need to create platforms that treat external content as a first-class citizen. As a prototype for this behavior, I have created https://decentus.com/. This is a web content aggregator that embraces the ideas of decentralized identity and content ownership. A user who is identified via domain name or blockstack id can post any external link. The title and description of this link are being retrieved from the meta-data of the web page itself. The external content is treated first-class, and the aggregator is only responsible for indexing and prioritizing the external content.
In Decentus, you can see all posts that were posted by the user (domain). Here is an example. In a way, this is a news feed of tautvilas.lt decentralized user. In the future, it is possible to add notifications and subscriptions where anyone could subscribe to a list of domains that they follow. Since your domain is your username, it means that your personal website is also your user profile for all social networks that you would use. This opens up a lot of new possibilities for developing your personal brand.
Decentus.com also implements a loginless way to submit external URLs. This is implemented by using domain-name based authentication. Currently, this process is quite clumsy, but it is a glimpse to the possible future where you would not need to log-in to any service and be recognized by your domain name using mechanisms of cryptography. No logging in also means no stealth tracking of user actions on the web.
Currently, Decentus platform is extremely simple and it gives just a glance to the liberated web. In the future a composition of technologies like blockstack, dpage, decentralized identity, loginless interactions and external content oriented social platforms will give us the full experience. I believe in the internet where people will own their identity, where the web pages will be independent and self-defining pieces of content . Having a more decentralized web will enable content aggregation and sharing possibilities that we have not imagined before. It will open up the creative abilities of humans to build a better web, where the flow of information runs free and unrestricted.